It’s finally time to get crackin’. Literally. Black walnuts are ready for shelling.
This nutty story goes back to early this past autumn as black walnut trees were shedding their nuts. The nuts fall in their husks, the whole package looking like green tennis balls. Lots of people curse the trees for littering lawns, sidewalks, and driveways. We, on the other hand, praise and collect the nuts.
The first step to the present day crackin’ was husking the nuts. The soft, fleshy covering is easy to twist off the enclosed, hard-shelled nut. But we’ve also tried many methods to speed up the process, from spreading the dropped fruit in the driveway and driving over them to pounding them through a 1-1/2” hole in a thick piece of plywood to running them through a suitably modified old-fashioned corn-sheller.
There’s no way around it: Husking black walnuts is a tedious job. And messy, because the soft flesh readily releases a juice which stains everything a deep brown color.
A friend recently told me of some novice black walnut enthusiasts that husked the walnuts bare handed, assuming the stain would wash off when they were finished. Not so. My wife Deb, who husks our black walnuts, chooses to sit herself down on a stool, don rubber gloves, and twist off the hulls, coaxing firm ones off with an initial tap with a light sledge hammer.
(The stain, which is colorfast and resistant to ultraviolet rays, is very easy to extract from the hulls for ink, for dyeing textiles, and staining wood. Just mix the hulls or unhulled nuts with water and boil for awhile or let sit a longer while. Strain and you’re good to go.)
In not too long, we had a number of 5 gallon bucketfuls of hulled nuts — a slimy, ugly mess from bits of hull still attached to the nuts and from the myriad white maggots crawling.
Now it was my turn — to clean up the nuts. I loaded all the nuts into shallow harvest boxes that had plenty of large holes for air or water and drove over to a nearby car wash. After suiting up in an old pair of rain pants, a rain jacket, rubber gloves, and a face shield, and spreading out the boxes on the ground in the car wash, I gave them a thorough, water-only cleaning.
I then spread the boxes out in the sun for a couple of days to dry out the surface of the nuts. Squirrels would be a serious threat but I spread the boxes on our south-facing deck where our two dogs also spend much of the day unknowingly guarding the nuts. Each night, or if any rain was predicted, I stacked and covered the boxes.
After the nuts were sufficiently dry, I stacked the trays in the barn where our cat is the squirrel deterrent.
Then the nuts needed to be cured, which involves nothing more than leaving them alone in a cool, dry, squirrel-fee area. And that brings us up to the present day.
A Tough Nut
Black walnut is a hard nut to crack. No run-of-the-mill nutcracker is up to the job. The usual tool, which is effective, is a hammer against the nut resting on an anvil or concrete. Used with care, a vise might do the job.
Two problems: With the hammer, hitting your finger occasionally as you hold the nut is inevitable. You could, I guess, hold the nut in a pliers. With either method, you have to use just the right amount of force to crack the shell sufficiently in order to extract the nutmeats in reasonable sized pieces without crushing everything too, too small.
The hands-down best job for cracking black walnuts is, in my opinion, the “Master Nut Cracker” (http://www.masternutcracker.com). It’s expensive but well worth the money for the speed with which the nuts can be cracked and the large nutmeats that result from efficient cracking. Besides which, it’s a very well-made tool with a very ingenious design.
Once nuts are cracked, nutmeats still occasionally need further coaxing to free them from the shell. A useful tool that I use that almost everyone has is a type of wire cutter sometimes called a diagonal cutting plier. The right squeeze in the right place, the result of observation and practice, yields large nutmeats that pop right out.
But Is It For You?
Black walnuts have a strong flavor that, like dark beer and okra, is loved by some but not enjoyed by everyone. But there’s no reason why everyone should like everything. Leave that goal to MacDonald’s. As L. H. Bailey, a doyen of horticulture, wrote back in 1922 (about apples), “Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many kinds of folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes.”
Black walnut is one of my favorite nuts. And, the trees and nuts abound around here, and elsewhere, free for the taking.